Tragedy, Heartbreak, and Outrage: What to Do?

If you follow the news or social media at all, you know that there have been many heartbreaking and tragic events happening all around us in the United States in just this past week. These events have led many people—at least in my news feed—to express feelings of anger and outrage. Here is a sampling of things (some obviously more serious than others) that people have been outraged by in the last week or so:

  • The death of Cincinnati Zoo gorilla Harambe after a child climbed into its enclosure.

  • The extremely light sentencing of Stanford swimmer Brock Turner despite being found guilty in a court of law of multiple counts of sexual assault.

  • The viral video claiming that Google has manipulated its search results in favor of Hillary Clinton (although others claim that Google has done nothing wrong).

  • Donald Trump (pretty much a consistent for the last six months)

  • The shocking and violent shooting of popular singer and “The Voice” alumni Christina Grimmie.

  • The suspension of Golden State Warriors’ forward Draymond Green.

  • Most recently, and most shockingly, the shooting of fifty people in an Orlando gay nightclub by an American-born Afghani Muslim man who recently declared allegiance to ISIS.

When faced with so much tragedy what are we to do? Should we only be heartbroken, or is there a good and healthy place for anger—even outrage? And what about practical responses like passing laws or signing petitions? When tragedy happens, how are Christians to respond? I would like to share five instructions from the Bible, words given by God to his people to guide us in times of tragedy and heartbreak.

1. Weep With Those Who Weep

I have recently become aware of something that needs to change in my parenting. When one of my kids comes to me with a hurt, too often I respond with “what happened” instead of “what hurts?” My instinct is to try to understand the nature of the injury and to help fix the problem. The only issue is that my kids first need comfort and care, not a lesson on how to avoid the pain in the first place. I have been trying to remember to say, “where does it hurt” first, so that I can enter into their pain and show them comfort before trying to fix things. The simple reminder from the Apostle Paul to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15) is a good reminder to us that there is an appropriate time for such things.

Of course, there is a time and a place to analyze what happened and to discuss what should be done in the future. However, it seems too many Christians have bypassed the weeping stage. Like me with my kids, they’ve jumped straight to the “work it out” stage without leaving time to grieve. Especially in our current politically- and religiously-charged atmosphere, I start to wonder if we even can still weep together. In his recent article, “Can We Still Weep Together,” Christian author Russell Moore said, “Our national divisions increasingly make it difficult for us not just to work together, but even to pause and weep together. We become more concerned about protecting ourselves from one another’s political pronouncements than we do with mourning with those who mourn.” It doesn’t matter if the hurting person is a worshipper of Jesus or a worshipper of the moon: God wants our first response to be sympathy and care.

2. Be Slow and Cautious In Your Anger

Some Christians mistakenly believe that all anger is a sin and should be avoided. Yet, God gets angry over injustice and the destruction of shalom, so how can anger always be a sin? The problem isn’t anger in an of itself, it’s that our anger is very often sinful. Our anger, unlike God’s, commonly stems from selfish motives. We often don’t have a desire to see change in ourselves, we just want everybody else to change so that they stop disrupting our happy little world. Consider these examples from Scripture warning us against unbridled anger.

  • Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly. (Proverbs 14:29)

  • Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools. (Ecclesiastes 7:9)

  • Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. (Ephesians 4:26-27)

  • …let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:19-20)

When we’re “outraged” over our brief Comcast service outage one day and “outraged” over what happened on our favorite TV show the next, it starts to cheapen our words when we say that we are “outraged” over a slaughter in a nightclub. Yes, we should be angry over the destruction of men and women who were created in the image and likeness of God. But as a regular practice, check your outrage. Is your anger truly godly, or are you simply going with the flow of culture, a culture that seems to find ways to be outraged over smaller and smaller things each week?

3. Reject Apathy and Cynicism

When faced with tragedy, some people go the opposite direction from anger into cynicism and apathy. Apathy says, “this always happens, nothing ever changes, so why do anything?” Cynicism takes it even further and says, “this always happens, nothing ever changes, so why even care anymore?” Both apathy and cynicism have no place in the life of a Christ follower. First, we have the hope of the gospel as a constant motivator. Sure, there will always be brokenness and hurt until the day of Jesus’ return, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care. In 1 Thessalonians 5, the Apostle Paul reminds us that even when we are grieving, we don’t grieve in a hopeless manner. Because Jesus has been raised from the dead, there is always hope for redemption and healing!

Second, we are called to put our hope into action. When God’s people were taken into exile and slavery by Babylon, God gave this shocking instruction through the prophet Jeremiah: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7). Can you imagine how the people would have felt? “God, these bloodthirsty Babylonians have taken us out of our homes and have brought us into captivity, and you want us to do what for them?” As surprising as it may have been to them, this instruction still applies to us today. Why? Because multiple writers in the New Testament refer to Christians today as “exiles,” those who live in a foreign land and who eagerly await our permanent home with Christ. We too are called to “seek the welfare” of the towns and cities that we live in. This means being willing to roll up our sleeves and help others wherever God opens up opportunities for us to do so.

4. Remember That Government Makes a Terrible God

In our rush to “fix things,” many Christians have been very quick to run to political solutions. In fact, if you’re a Christian, you should probably prepare to be mocked for following this step. Non-Christians will say things like, “you go talk to your sky fairy over there, I’ll be over here trying to actually come up with a solution” (an actual quote I recently saw on Twitter). Jesus, in his famous conversation with the chief priests taught us that we were to give “to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). In this profound statement is a reminder that there are boundary lines between God and government. 

Should you advocate for a particular politician? Should you sign a petition? Should you contact your congressman to advocate for certain laws to be passed? To these questions I would give a wholehearted “yes!” The gift of common grace includes laws and governments that can help protect us. However, the Christian should remember that no matter how many laws are passed, only God can change the deep motivations of a human heart. And no matter how good a particular elected official may be, his rule is short lived. Our ultimate hope must be in God, not government. As Psalm 146:3-4 says, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.”

5. Remember the Cross

Perhaps the thing that has most surprised me in recent weeks is the amount of “judgment” language I have seen floating around Facebook. People of all political and religious persuasions have been outright imprecatory in their calls for judgment to fall on whoever the offending party may be. The most shocking one actually came from a non-Christian Facebook friend in reference to the Brock Turner sentencing (paraphrased): “sure, you got off with just a slap of the wrist, but now we live in the age of the internet. I hope that the rest of your life is miserable, long, and painful.” The irony in this response is that it comes from one who would claim to be an agnostic and who has told me they hate the idea of hell, even while their response advocates an earthly version of the same.

Like it or not, we can’t get rid of the idea of judgement. When an injustice occurs, we rightly feel that something needs to happen to balance out the scales. In a recent article entitled “Is This Really the Kind of Judge You Want God to Be?” Amy Hall convincingly compares the arguments made by Brock Turner’s lawyer as to why he should get off from punishment to the arguments used by us to say why we don’t deserve judgement, even hell. (Space here is limited, but I highly recommend that you read the whole article). Even non-Christians know that injustices need to be corrected, and that evildoers should be punished.

The bottom line is this: we all have sinned against God in grievous ways (Romands 3:23). We all like sheep have gone astray. We all have committed spiritual adultery, treason, and vandalism. As Amy Hall writes, “Justice is so much easier to see when we’re talking about someone else…Could it be that we, like Turner’s family and friends, are not seeing things clearly when it comes to our own guilt and what it deserves?”

The Orlando shooter deserves hell. Brock Turner deserves hell. Donald Trump deserves hell. Draymond Green deserves hell. But so do I.

But the good news of the gospel is that God has sent his Son to bear the penalty that we deserve. Unlike an unjust judge who lets the guilty go unpunished, God took the punishment on himself, and gives us his transformative grace to change us into beloved sons and daughters. Killers turned into agents of life. Mockers turned into encouragers. Hate-filled people turned into people overflowing with God’s love. As Christians, may we always remember the incredible grace that we have been shown. And may that grace shape how we respond during times of tragedy.

Prayer: Father, grant us the grace to love you and to love others well in times of tragedy. Jesus, return soon and set this broken world to rights. And while we await that day, Holy Spirit empower us to make a difference in this broken world—for God’s kingdom and glory. Amen.